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Compressed Air, Vampire Power, and how to make office life greener
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By Eric de Place

I have an untidy habit of eating while I'm on the computer. Unfortunately, my habit means that crumbs of sandwich or potato chips make their way into the crevices of my computer keyboard. It’s gross. And one way to clean a keyboard is with a compressed chemical canister (pictured above) that blasts the bad stuff away. But the other day, while I was merrily blasting away at my keyboard, I read the contents. Big mistake.

My little 10-ounce canister contains 100 percent HFC-134a a greenhouse gas that is roughly 3,300 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Yikes.

A back of the envelope calculation tells me that using up my 10-ounce can of cleaner will have the same climate-changing effect over the next 20 years as burning at least 100 gallons of gasoline. With that much gas I could drive my trusty Honda Civic from my office in Seattle to New York City. And then back to Chicago. And I would still have plenty of fuel to spare for side-trips. All that climate wallop is packed into a canister retailing for $10.99 at the Office Depot around the corner.

This is not a good idea. I’m a little ashamed of my canister, but for the sake of the planet I’ve stopped using it. And it did get me to thinking about some ways we can make our offices friendlier for the planet. Here are a few, starting with the obvious.

1. Clean the old-fashioned way.

If there’s any good news about my climate-destroying keyboard duster, it’s that there is a pretty simple remedy: don’t use chemical keyboard dusters with HFC-132a. Not only is my canister a demonstrable hazard to planet, but there’s a substitute chemical, HFC-152, that’s every bit as effective with only about one-tenth the heat-trapping potential. Of course, even one-tenth the impact is far too large for a keyboard-cleaning device -- we should avoid those too.

In fact, I believe we should even go a step further and work toward a ban on chemical keyboard dusters altogether. Even using up a canister of the more-benign HFC-152 is the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving my car from Seattle to Portland, Oregon and back. Plus, let’s be honest, there’s very little practical use for the canisters. A feather duster, though not as zippy, works just as well. So does turning your keyboard upside down. So does a vacuum. So I think that we don’t need too-clever “market-based” solutions here -- and we don’t need to worry about pricing externalities -- we just need to ban the darn things.

2. Slay the vampires.

More important than keyboard-cleaning, however, is the problem of vampires. You may not realize that your office is haunted, but it turns out that one of the curiosities of the modern office, with its army of undead computing appliances, is that even after workers head home for the night, the office is still awake. And it’s still sucking power from the grid. These power-sucking appliances are sometimes called “vampires,” for their parasitic ways. (It has nothing to do with their Transylvanian accents.)

It’s a little know fact that even in “standby” mode these appliances are drawing power. Take the innocent microwave oven in your office kitchen: it may expend just as power keeping its digital clock running as it does heating up leftovers. And that’s not the worst of it. Appliances with transformers, such as cell phone chargers or computer power suppliers, are always drawing power – even when the device is off. It may not be very much, but it adds up over time, especially when the drain is multiplied across every device in an office.

It’s estimated that in the average residence, somewhere between 5 and 13 percent of all electricity is actually consumed by appliances when no one is using them. And there’s reason to believe that the share in offices, which are frequently chock-a-block with computers on “standby” mode -- still sucking energy -- is much higher.

According to Sightline Institute’s research director (and my boss), Clark Williams-Derry:

…different brands and models of the same kinds of appliance use wildly different amounts of power in standby mode. One compact disc player may draw 1 watt while idling; another might draw 30. Manufacturers have little incentive to improve the situation on their own, since they don't pay the power bills. And while energy efficiency geeks are aware of the problem, few retail consumers pay much attention.
The long-term solution is probably smart regulatory intervention. In 2004, California passed a law that imposed limits on standby power consumption. It took effect in January, so that (according to the Economist) "it is now illegal in California to sell a television or DVD player that consumes more than three watts in standby mode." Similar standards for other devices, especially PCs and printers, are in order.

Until there’s better regulation of manufacturers, however, there is plenty an office can do to put the vampires to rest: you can read all about them in Jeremy Faludi’s excellent article of May 2006 in Worldchanging. New chips reduce standby power use; better power strips do the same; and occupancy sensors can shut off power when a room is not in use. And that’s only the beginning. Plus you can always, you know, unplug the devices (or turn off the power strip), but the elegantly simple solution is also the easiest to forget.

Remember, slaying the electricity vampires isn’t just good for the environment, its good business sense too. Slicing 10 percent or more off the office power bill might save the company of nice chunk of change, perhaps even enough to buy free bus passes for the employees.

3. Think: location, location, location.

Speaking of bus passes, an office’s biggest environmental impact may actually not be inside the workplace. It may be the way that employees commute. Is the office situated in a place where nearly everyone must drive a car? Or can many employees choose pedal-power or neighborhood transit?

Now obviously, choosing where to locate an office is not an everyday decision. But in terms of the office’s environmental impact, there’s arguably no choice more important. Commuting accounts for roughly one-quarter of all vehicle trips taken in the United States – and transportation is the single biggest cause of global warming emissions in the country. What’s more, commute trips are generally the easiest trips for people to get out of their cars and into a more planet-friendly mode: there’s seldom need to carry cumbersome loads to and from the office; work schedules are highly predictable; and transit offerings are at their most generous during regular commute hours.

Generally speaking, offices that are located in-city tend to allow for more commuting choices and lower environmental impact. Transit services tend to be better in town. And traditional urban street grids can foster biking and walking more effectively than the high-speed roadways that are typical of sprawling locations.

Locating an office depends on a number of factors, of course. But because location can have a powerful effect on how much energy employees use just getting to work, it may turn out that the swanky “built-green” campus on the urban fringe is a worse environmental choice, on balance, than the drafty old building downtown. So when looking for ways to green your office, just bear in mind the old real estate adage -- location, location, location.

4. Buy carbon offsets.

As a further step, offices can consider purchasing carbon offsets to reduce or eliminate their contribution to climate change. Admittedly, there’s a fair bit of debate about the utility of offsets – mostly about whether the offset accounting is accurate -- but no one thinks that they’re meaningless. At worst, they’re a worthwhile gimmick. At best, they’re a market-friendly way to reduce emissions in the here-and-now.

My office, which is home to about dozen people during the workday, recently joined an offset program from a local company called NetGreen. With a price tag of just $241, including the carbon that we emit during our commutes, our offset purchase did a little good for the planet and it wasn’t exactly hard on our bottom line either. (I should mention, I suppose, that my co-workers are almost all cyclists, pedestrians, or bus-riders; and our office is powered by a carbon-neutral utility. So our offset bill is probably lower than average.)

While purchasing offsets doesn’t excuse us from taking other steps to soften our environmental impact, it offers an assist to the next generation of cleaner and greener technologies. Carbon offsets can help bring online those climate-friendly energy sources and power-sipping appliances that I hope will be the norm before it’s time for my retirement.

Eric de Place is a senior researcher at Sightline Institute, and contributes research and writing for the Cascadia Scorecard, especially on sprawl, economic security, wildlife, and other topics. He also writes for the Daily Score blog and contributes to a number of other Sightline projects. Sightline Institute recently put together a guide to the green guides to help sort out what's what.

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Dear Eric,

Thankyou for your informative article. I welcome any articles such as these in order to get people thinking (and hopefully making better choices in future).

Your comments on air dusters and HFC-134a and 152a are incomplete, however. I have considerable experience in this area and would offer the following additional information for the edification of your readers:

1. As you correctly note, HFC-134a is a potent greenhouse gas. It has a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of 1300. In general terms, this means that 1 kilogram of HFC134a released to the atmosphere is equivalent in it's global warming impact to releasing 1300 kilograms of CO2. HFC134a is thus extremely environmentally potent.
2. HFC-152a is considerably better in global warming terms (GWP ~140), but an order of magnitude worse than alternative natural gases (such as CO2 or hydrocarbons).
3. HFC-152a is flammable (as are hydrocarbons, one of the natural alternatives). HFC-152a, however, produces toxic byproducts if it ignites. The makers of HFC-152a go to great pains to show how 152a is *slightly* less flammable than hydrocarbons, but when you take a look at all the risk factors to humans and the environment, 152a is by far a worse choice.

Modern advances in the use of natural refrigerants (which are also used as dusters and solvents) means that the technology is already available (and cost- and environmentally- effective) to the extent that HFC134a AND HFC152a (and basically all fluorinated gases) are ENTIRELY REDUNDANT and their use is unneccessary. All it needs is proper education of the relevant industries of this poorly known fact and a will to change.

You correctly point out that for cleaning a computer keyboard, other methods can be employed to avoid 'air-dusters' altogether. Other applications require these kinds of equipment, however, so for those applications I would advocate a duster powered by a natural gas (CO2 or hydrocarbons), used appropriately.

One big problem with effecting change in this area is that DuPont and other chemical giants have held significant effective control over supply of these kinds of products and due to entrenched industry links and a virtual monopoly for 50+ years maintain significant effective control over how the industry is guided in future.

Pushing R152a on the marketplace by DuPont is a classic case in point that highlights the true motives of these big chemical companies. Knowing that HFC134a is going to be banned sooner or later, they are trying to keep the industry hooked on product that is a higher risk than a hydrocarbon and much higher GWP (hydrocarbon GWP is 3), but is patent- (and therefore production- and price-) controlled.

This ludicrous situation is exacerbated by the US EPA, which has once again succumbed to these powerful interest groups by endorsing the flammable and toxic R152a as a "Significant New Alternative" whilst undertaking an aggressive campaign against eminently superior natural hydrocarbons on the grounds that they are flammable! Not only is the EPA acting outside it's mandate (it is NOT a safety authority), but it is endorsing a more toxic fluorochemical with an order of magnitude higher environmental footprint.

Unlike fluorochemicals, natural gases are not patentable (and are very cheap) and therefore the supply and pricing can't be controlled by the likes of DuPont. To endorse naturals would effectively mean DuPont would have to sign away a multi-billion dollar cash cow.

This is the reality of why HFC134a and HFC152a dusters dominate your shopping shelves and not CO2 or hydrocarbon dusters.


John Clark

Posted by: John Clark on 8 May 07

erm... why not eat somewhere other than your desk?

All other suggestions for doing your bit to 'green' the office are great, though. Thank you.

Posted by: Bond on 9 May 07

There's always the trusty vacuum cleaner. I bought my cheap ($60) but powerful vac at Sears. It cleans my house _and_ gets the sesame seeds out of my keyboard using a permanent cleanable filter (no bags.)

Posted by: Jeffrey Swainhart on 9 May 07

Keyboards get filthy even without the benefit of food crumbs.

I discovered that the Sun workstation keyboards we use at work have keys that pop off. Last year, I popped off all of the keys (a row at a time), rubbed them clean, swept off the board underneath, and reassembled.

* * *

My computer workstation's "vampires" are now all on a seperate power strip. I leave it off unless I need the wireless network up.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 9 May 07

Another option to using expensive, and heat trapping gas to clean the computer keyboard is to use simple compressed air.

The purchase of an "air hog" will allow one to take a charge of compressed air anywhere, and use it to blow dust from the keyboard, and indeed, from inside the computer itself.

If you've ever taken the case off your desktop, you'll know why you need to clean them out too.


Posted by: Bill Wade on 10 May 07

I recall reading somewhere that electrical appliances drain power, EVEN when they are turned off at the source. You would need to physically unplug them to prevent this.

Can anyone verify this?


Posted by: Hun Boon on 16 May 07

Regarding vampires: We discovered how to cut our energy usage by turning off vampires. We noticed that our two Time Warner cable tv boxes were always hot to the touch. We plugged each of them into power strips and turn off the power strips when we are not using them. Amazing results! Our energy usage was cut almost in half in our next month's bill. We've been doing this for over a year now.

Posted by: laura rovinsky on 18 May 07



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